NMED moving forward with Eagle Picher well

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The New Mexico Environment Department found no contaminants in the Eagle Picher well — located near an old battery manufacturing plant — while conducting a test of the well in February, said Sabino Rivera, a member of the NMED, in an email.

Eagle Picher is one of six sources of water for the city, located two miles north of Socorro

The contaminants, called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, have been a concern for citizens of the city because they were found in the city’s drinking water in concentrations that could pose a health risk. After testing for those contaminants, the NMED is moving to the next step.

“Currently, the New Mexico Environment Department Ground Water Quality Bureau is in the process of finalizing a contractor to start the remedial investigation/feasibility study,” Rivera said. “The RI/FS process gathers information that will be used to support a record of decision to select a remedy that eliminates, reduces or controls risks to human health and the environment. Typically the RI/FS process takes anywhere from one year to 18 months to complete.”

After that test in February, the NMED tested the well and surrounding area again in May. The test, a soil vapor sampling, involves driving a probe into the ground of a site for contaminant analysis, according to the EPA’s website.

The probe brings to the surface soil vapors, elements and compounds in the form of gas that collects between the small particles of the soil. This test is especially effective in sites with shallow groundwater, such as the Sierra Ladron Aquifer, the source of water for the city’s four wells and two springs.

The Eagle Picher well is located two miles north of the city in the Socorro Basin, the Eagle Picher Carefree Batteries Superfund Site. The site consists of 173 mostly undeveloped acres and has seen a lot of changes over the years.

In 1932, the federal government built barracks for members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program that put many unemployed people to work on the site.

Starting in 1936, a state tuberculosis sanatorium, a hospital-like institution for long-term illnesses, opened its doors and treated patients for 20 years. The now-abondoned sanatorium, which held as many as 1,200 beds at one point, is believed to by haunted today.

After it closed down, the state continued to own the land until 1962, when the city of Socorro took over.

Two years later, the city sold the land to Eagle Picher, Inc., a manufacturer of circuit boards, communication antennae and non-automotive lead-acid batteries. The corporation, which converted the CCC barracks into a 40,000 square foot manufacturing facility, also created two sewage lagoons and a pit for its industrial waste. The NMED attributes the VOCs in the well and soil to the facility, Rivera said.

In 1977, Eagle Picher deeded the land back to the city. Socorro used two arroyos, one in the north part of the site and one just west of it, as municipal landfills. The landfills closed down around 1980 and the acreage went back to Eagle Picher, which continued to make lead-acid batteries.

“In November 1987, chlorinated compounds were detected in a city of Socorro municipal drinking water supply well,” according to an EPA Region 6 document.

The compounds were also found in private wells south of the Eagle Picher one.

“As a result, numerous investigations were conducted for the purpose of determining the source of the contamination.”

The compounds the investigations found included trichloroethene, a chemical commonly used in the de-greasing of metal; 1,1-dichloroethene, used to make Saran wrap; tetrachloroethene, used in the dry-cleaing of fabric; and cis-1,2-dichloroethene, a solvent for materials such as wax and resins.

These compounds, which attack the central nervous system, can cause noticeable side effects, such as headaches, vomiting or skin irritation, but only if exposed to moderate concentration levels.

Only 1,1-DCE and TCE were “at concentrations above their health-based screening values in water supply wells,” according to a public health assessment for the Eagle Picher area from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“Based on the available measured (VOC) concentrations and estimated doses, adverse health effects from past exposure to (sic) contaminated drinking water wells around the (Eagle Picher) site are unlikely to produce any adverse health effects, including cancer,” according to the health assessment conducted in 2009.

In 2000, the city regained ownership of the Eagle Picher land. The site went on the EPA’s National Priorities List on Sept. 19, 2007.